A bobsled brakeman makes his driving debut at North American Cup
This sliding season marks the start of a new Olympic cycle. Which means new competitors will come up through the ranks – from developmental up to World Cup teams – who have a lot to learn before the best of the best gather in Beijing.
Nick Cunningham, development team assistant coach for USA Bobsled, said nearly all of the team’s brakemen are new to the circuit this year, as well as a handful of its pilots. One of the rookies was Frank Del Duca, who after years as a brakeman, competed as a pilot for the first time on Monday in the IBSF North American Cup at the Utah Olympic Park.
“It’s very exciting,” Del Duca, 27, said on Sunday, before the start of the tournament. “My lifeline is driving; I’ve loved it since I was a kid.”
The native of Bethel, Maine, grew up driving go-karts, dirt bikes and, later, cars with an autocross club. For the past three years he was a bobsled brakeman, during which he pushed for Steve Holcomb in the 2016 World Championships, and with Cunningham in the 2017 World Championships.
But since the beginning of his bobsled career, he knew he wanted to be a pilot.
“I had a huge smile, ear to ear, the whole way down,” Del Duca remembered of his first minute-long drive at Lake Placid three years ago. “I know (that) drivers; we need to stay composed, so when I was done with the run, I took my helmet off and had my smile go away, and I was like ‘Yeah, yeah, that was pretty cool.’ But in my mind I was elated. Few things make me feel the way I do when I drive.”
Driving isn’t quite the same in bobsled as it is in motorsports. There’s no braking, and the sleds can only really steer while cornering.
As a pilot, Del Duca and his fellow racers steer the sleigh by pulling on two metal rings, a movement that shifts the runners under the front of the sled.
“You’ll put so much money into research and development for the top-level sleds, and in the end it’s still just pieces of metal and some rope that steers them,” he said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But the sleds do require fixing sometimes.
His teammate, Hunter Church, said the new pilot’s background as an auto racer is a boon, not just in terms of his racing ability, but because he’s used to the mechanical side of sports.
Sometimes, Church said, athletes who join the sport from football or track backgrounds, as Del Duca did after running track at the University of Maine, struggle with the garage time necessary to make a good bobsledder.
“Bobsled’s a pretty blue collar sport, where we spend a lot of our own time working on our sleds,” Church said. “A lot of people aren’t used to being in a garage for hours after training and constantly be making minor adjustments to sleds to make them go faster. That’s why Frankie is perfect for the sport … he loves working on cars and small engines.”
This is Church’s 10th year in the sport and his fourth as a pilot as he follows in the footsteps of his great uncle, Thomas, and his father, Joe, who competed in the 1947 Olympic Trials and the 1987 Olympic Trials, respectively.
While Church and Del Duca are both working toward the same goal, the two are sharing information along the way – a practice that Church said has grown under Cunningham’s leadership.
“We want the best people in the best positions,” Church said, summarizing the team’s philosophy. “We’re constantly sharing what we’re doing.”
Information about the cleanest lines to take on the course, what runners to use on the sleds, and maintenance flow freely among the team, Church said.
“We help each other out with sled work,” Del Duca said. “I did some bodywork with my brakeman, Chris Walsh. (Pilot) Geoff Gadbois had a similar issue, so I got all the tools together and the materials and said ‘This is how you do it.’ That lets us put our best foot forward on race day and brings the best out of all of us.”
On Monday, Del Duca pushed his two-man sled with experienced brakeman and longtime friend Carlo Valdes, and skidded to a stop in third place after his first run. Rudy Rinaldi of Monaco placed first, while Canadian Christopher Spring took second.
“I was very excited both for my NAC debut and to be racing with Carlo again,” Del Duca said after the race. “I was very happy after the first run; just being in third place in my first North American Cup I was very happy, but I also recognized mistakes so i was pretty focused to fix them. Unfortunately I think I fixed the mistakes I made during the first run, then made additional ones that I didn’t make the first one.”
Del Duca and Valdes finished the day in ninth – the second-highest U.S. team after that of Gadbois, which took sixth. Church finished the day in 11th.
“I am pretty bummed how I finished; dropping so many spots on the second run,” Del Duca said. “But I think that’s where I can learn and just try to get experience and get more consistent.”
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